Dawn of the Dead (1978)


*. This is widely, though not universally, regarded as the greatest zombie film ever — a title that it has managed to hold on to despite a tsunami of better-financed competition in the twenty-first century.
*. It’s a movie I feel I grew up with. I didn’t see it when it first came out, but caught it later on videotape. Of course I was blown away. I hadn’t seen anything like it. Few people had.
*. Contemporary reviewers were in shock. It has an entry in The New York Times Guide to the 1000 Best Movies Ever Made, but the reviewer (Janet Maslin) admits she walked out after the first fifteen minutes. It had that kind of effect.


*. It’s also one of those movies that has had so much said about it, both in mainstream sources and online, that there’s little left to add. It’s like trying to do a commentary on Psycho.
*. That said, a lot of what’s been said has been overdone. Romero states on the DVD commentary that he’s only interested in the concept behind his films: “I don’t care about the people.” And concept films are much beloved of people who write about movies. It’s easier to indulge in paraphrase and interpretation than to comment on technique.
*. And interpretation isn’t hard here. A satire of consumerism? Well, yes. That’s kind of obvious. Romero knew it was obvious. He was amazed people thought this was something that needed to be pointed out to audiences.
*. After all, just because Romero is a director interested in developing social and political themes doesn’t mean he’s interested in being subtle. In fact, he wanted to make a comic book film. The blood here is a ridiculously bright red that Tom Savini hated but that Romero liked because it added to the effect. The non-Goblin music also seems jarringly out of place (and I think Dario Argento cut some of it for European release), but again Romero liked it for the same reason he liked the bright red blood. He wanted it to be fake.


*. The opening shot has Francine’s head leaning against the wall. This is a position that is repeated countless times in the film. Characters are always standing or sitting with their backs against a wall. Was this a conscious decision? I doubt it, but it makes a thematic point.
*. There is at least one way that the comic book sensibility plays against the movie. The biker gang are complete idiots, just vandals without a cause. How have they survived so long engaging in such risky behaviour for so little real gain? At this point, why do they want to steal a bunch of useless tat and baubles from department stores? Or rob a bank of paper money?
*. The best (or worst) example is the guy who straps himself into the blood pressure machine just as the zombies are getting the upper hand and are all over him. It makes no sense at all, except as a way of forcing a pretty ineffective joke (the severed arm giving a dangerous reading).
*. And yet I suppose Roger is just as big an idiot, and his juvenile goofing off is what leads to his ultimately getting killed. It’s as though there’s a corollary to the zombie virus that makes (men at least) revert to being children.
*. Or perhaps it’s not the zombie virus itself so much as it’s the setting. The mall represents consumerism, sure, but also a fantasy of plenty and self-sufficiency. It’s a sort of paradise or Eden for homesteaders who don’t have to actually do any work, and where all one’s wants are provided for (remarkably, the power stays on throughout). Is this not what Freud saw as the paradise of childhood?



*. It’s very cheap, but effectively leverages what production value they had (the helicopter, the use of the mall) to make a movie that looks like it has a decent budget.
*. The best directors make strengths out of weaknesses. Romero had no money to pay for big stars, but he didn’t want them anyway. You want to see ordinary people in a situation like this. You don’t want to see Brad Pitt playing the hero and saving the world from zombies. Of course you got that anyway, but only later, when the zombie phenomenon had entered its decadent Hollywood phase.
*. What carries it all though is the insane level of energy that everyone agrees was present on the set. This manifests itself in countless ways on screen. People are always running from place to place. They talk excitedly. And most of all there are a lot of cuts. The camera doesn’t move much, but the editing is frantic. Even the slow, talky scenes are presented in this way.
*. Is the gore the most shocking thing about it? I don’t think so, and perhaps it wasn’t even at the time. The killing of the two children at the airport has always struck me as a particularly shocking scene, and the very frank talk about the advisability of Francine having an abortion (Peter says he knows how to do it). It seems to me that the best horror movies (and novels, for that matter) gain a lot from this kind of disarming frankness. We feel we’re in a world that is more real, and one where there are no rules about what can and can’t be talked about, what can and can’t be shown. That the dead have come to life and are eating people is one thing, but killing a pair of noisy, hyperactive kids (they are the sole exceptions to normal Romero zombie movement) and sitting around talking about abortions . . . now those are signs of the apocalypse.


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